The man beat, berated, choked, sprayed with Mace, and prostituted the teenage victim. Once, when he rented a hotel room and she couldn’t get a “John,” he forced her head under water in a bathtub as punishment.
Another time, after she told Brandon Lamar Pruitt she was raped by a client, he “punched and hit her repeatedly because she did not know her cross streets and ‘allowed’ her own rape,” Nevada prosecutors wrote in federal court documents.
She partially took the blame, writing in her diary: “My lesson was, pay attention to my surroundings.”
Human trafficking is a $150-billion-a-year industry that affects 20 million victims, said Nicholas Trutanich, the U.S. attorney for Nevada who prosecuted Pruitt. A federal jury found him guilty of sex trafficking and transportation of a minor for prostitution, sentencing him last year to a 25-year sentence.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which hits home in Las Vegas, a city Trutanich said is one of the nation’s hotbeds for such cases.
Many follow a similar story to that of Pruitt’s victim.
The girl was 14 when “Tootsie,” a prostitute working under Pruitt recruited her in Los Angeles in 2013. From the first day they met, she began to sell her body and give Pruitt her earnings.
Naive, impressionable and in love, the orphaned girl immediately fell under his spell. Court documents describe Pruitt as a master manipulator who took a child’s innocence and “methodically and continually destroyed her life. He claimed to love her, but he did nothing but use her,” his sentencing memorandum reads.
Eventually, he brought her to Las Vegas.
Even when Pruitt landed in jail in 2016, he continued to prostitute the girl over the phone, manipulating her to stop collaborating with authorities, and even threatened suicide if she didn’t talk to him. All the while, he kept promising a future together: marriage.
No two human trafficking cases are the same and authorities in Las Vegas have had to adjust to changing business models. Officials say they’re seeing cases of gang members trading in dealing with guns and drugs with dealing with humans. Unlike illicit weapons and narcotics, he added, a person can be sold over and over again.
In Las Vegas, the average age of victims — like in the Pruitt case — is 14, Trutanich said. It’s despicable, he said. “Those are kids who should be in middle school,” he lamented.
A 2019 report by the nonprofit Shared Hope International graded Nevada with an “A” in dealing with facilitators, victims and traffickers because the state has the tools for investigations and prosecutions. The state, which had the second highest score behind Tennessee, was highlighted in the report as “most improved.” In contrast, Nevada was graded with an “F” in 2011.
“It doesn’t mean there’s not a problem,” but legislative, preventive efforts and partnerships between law enforcement and other players in the community, such as nonprofits, are working, Trutanich said.
Federal agencies, such as the FBI and the Homeland Security Investigations work with local agencies, such as Metro Police, in task forces. The U.S. Attorney’s Office reviews cases every quarter to see if they warrant federal prosecution, either because of the seriousness of the allegations or the age of the victims.
In July, the FBI rescued more than 100 child-sex-trafficking victims across the U.S. — 14 of those victims were picked up in Las Vegas, making it the district with the most victims recovered, Trutanich said.
Nevada’s U.S. attorney’s office has two staffers dedicated strictly to human trafficking, and several more prosecutors experienced in handling the cases.
“We have the tools and the horsepower inside the office to bring these cases to a jury,” Trutanich said.
Success wouldn’t be possible without everyone working together, Trutanich said. That includes the Department of Justice awarding Metro Police, the Rape Crisis Center, Hookers for Jesus and Awaken Inc. about $3 million to combat human trafficking.
Also, partners such as McCarran International Airport and those in the resorts corridor frequently reach out to authorities if they spot potential trafficking victims. And nonprofits take in victims who have escaped their captors and have nowhere else to live.
“I’m optimistic that we have a strategy and the plan that we help to help stem the rising tide of sex trafficking, but let’s be honest, one victim is too many,” Trutanich said.
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